The Enemy Within

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This post was originally published through Patreon on December 5, 2016.

Emily trembled in the dark. She was not alone.

“You can’t get rid of me so easily,” her demon snarled, a writhing mass of black. “You’re not strong enough.”

It had controlled her for most of her life. It was the power behind her throne, the puppeteer that pulled her strings from beyond the shadows.

“You hurt me,” Emily whispered.

Her demon didn’t reply, only issued a rumbling laugh that shook the world around her.

“You used me.”

Her heart pumped like a piston, her hands were sweat-soaked sponges, and the world tilted and began to spin. But she would not let this creature consume her. It thrived on her anxiety and fear, and there was nothing else for her to do but cut the cord.

Something in her features must have caught her demon’s attention, because it stopped laughing.

“What are you going to do?”

By way of reply, Emily pulled a knife. It caught the glimmer of a distant light and seemed to burst in a white pyrotechnic flash. She hiked up her shirt and looked down.

Beneath, attached to her clammy pallid skin, was a shadow blacker than the dark that connected her to her demon like an unholy umbilical cord. She seized it with her other hand. The knife hovered, ready to cut.

“It would hurt both of us,” her demon rasped. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But Emily would. She’d had enough, and she hesitated for just a moment before thrusting the blade down.

Both screamed. Emily and her demon threw back their heads as one and howled like mortally wounded animals. Through the bond they shared, each could feel the other. Fear rebounded, a feedback loop of mounting trauma that nearly destroyed them both.

Then there was a snap and Emily recoiled.

She smacked hard into the wall behind her, and a single starburst of pain drove her to to her knees. When it began to subside and she finally had the chance to catch her breath, she examined the skin beneath her shirt once more.

Clean. Her skin, in fact, had already started to fill with color. She gazed up, terrified the creature might be waiting to pull her back. But this time, Emily was alone.

Taking a deep breath, Emily let her face fall into her hands and cried.


George, a junior high school janitor, struggles to protect his disabled twin Bill from an otherworldly evil. In the process, he discovers a startling secret about his brother—one that leaves him questioning decades-old assumptions and wondering which of them truly is the stronger half.

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Death of a Fire Starter

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A ring of fire surrounds her. Its heat rises in bright, shimmering waves, baking her skin. How long does she have left? Three minutes? Five? Samantha draws into herself, wracks her brain for any opportunity to escape. But she knows death is inevitable.

All around her, hooded men and women stand at a safe distance, flickering as if ghosts.

“You knew the price of disobedience,” they told her before lighting the fire.

Samantha did, and if she’d been given the choice again, she would have done the same. If the Fire Starters had been able to forge ahead with their original plan, thousands of innocents would have burned.

The Fire Starters have always been her family. They took her in when she was a child and raised her as their own. For all their grievous faults, they were good to her, and choosing to betray them was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do.

She knew their history. She understood the crucible of relentless persecution in which the Fire Starters were transformed into the despots they are today. As she grew older, she tried to open their eyes, to show them a better way of living.

But when they decided to burn a city for refusing to pay them tribute, she knew no amount of reasoning would be enough to stop them. So she warned the population ahead of time, and when the Fire Starters came to destroy them, they found the city deserted.

Her only worry now as she burns to death—as she scents her hair smoking at the tips—is for the rest of the world. What will they do when their only advocate among the Fire Starters is dead?

And then it occurs to her. Perhaps she can’t save herself. But maybe, if she can find the strength within her—if she can intensify the flames—she can take her family with her.

She reaches for the Spark—the primordial power within as well as the source of every fire—and finds it waiting, as bright and fulminating as it was the day the Fire Starters taught her how to reach for it. She takes hold of it now and pairs it to the flames already blazing around her.

The fire responds at once, resonates with the fire within herself. The flames intensify, wild tongues reaching for the twilit sky, and she feeds it with all her remaining strength.

She hears their startled screams and knows she’s done it, that there’s no way they’ll be able to escape. They’re surrounded, just as she’s surrounded. Her own life is nearly extinguished, her vision turning black like her soon to be charred remains, but at least she’ll go with the knowledge that she was able to take them with her, that she was able to save the world from their wicked rule.

Let’s go, she thinks, into the fire we ourselves started.

Awareness gutters, and Samantha slips into the dark.

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Cycle’s End

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The sun: so bright, so warm against Tolvar’s skin. It feels good, feels right. To think, it’s been a thousand years since he saw it last. The world has changed since then. Where it was once covered in grassy knolls and sprawling forests, it now sprouts towering glass buildings and endless asphalt roads. A glittering cosmic jewel, the Earth, yet a jewel with a significant flaw.

Tolvar’s seen the news. He understands what so many others do not, that humanity is just as petty, just as tribalistic as it was a thousand years ago. He can sense the constant animosity and tension as if they’re a noxious gas poisoning the atmosphere, and he knows the well being of the world hangs by a single thread.

Well, what’s the modern saying Tolvar’s become so fond of? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course, things won’t remain the same once he’s had his way with the world.

Oh no.

He almost succeeded the last time, and if Andric hadn’t intervened, the world would have burned.

“Give them time,” Andric said, and Tolvar couldn’t argue, for his cycle had come to an end and it was his brother’s turn to rule. Well, now the reign of Andric—of saintly, human-loving Andric—is over, and Tolvar’s restoration is at hand.

He approaches a small white house in a quiet neighborhood and knocks on the door. A moment later, an old man answers.

“Is it time already?” The old man (Andric) sighs.

“Yes, brother.”

“Be kind to them.”

“Of course.”

But both men know there will be no peace until the cycle starts anew.

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Putting On the Mask

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After three centuries of endless searching, his quest has reached its end.

The object he requires stands before him now, sparkling beneath a glass case atop a plain wooden stand that belies its incredible power. He glances about before returning his eyes to the display. He knows there are cameras recording every angle of the room—the world has advanced considerably over the course of his unnaturally long life—and though he’s sure the glamour he learned during his exile is still working, he’s paranoid. Things can’t go wrong now, not when he’s inches away from the thing that will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the world forever.

When the white men butchered his people, including, eventually, his wife and children; when they planted their flags in the blood-soaked fields and claimed their land in the name of a foreign crown and an equally foreign god; when they obliterated all traces of his once proud and affluent culture, leaving his homeland in ruins; he thought his life was over. But there was one thing that kept him going, one thing that kept the withered heart in his desiccated chest beating long after it should have stopped along with those of his people.

The mask.

The priests, having foretold their own destruction more than a thousand years before the invaders came, saw fit to pass it down from one generation to the next, not under heavy guard or behind the locked doors of a fortified structure, but through a secret succession of descendants that even he, as their king, was not allowed to know.

The priests, in their wisdom, had understood a vital truth: that the greatest security sometimes lies in obscurity. A guard or a temple would have advertised the mask’s importance and would have surely fallen. But a simple family heirloom? No matter how zealously or how violently the invaders sought to stamp out their heathen practices, there was no way for them to reach everyone—no way for them to know that somewhere, in a simple fisherman’s village, in a quiet bamboo beach house, the future restoration of their people abided in peace.

Unfortunately, the priests were slain, and with them their secret.

He searched long and hard, trudged through creeping rainforests and windswept mountains. But he never found it, and the history of his people soon faded and was lost.

Then a miracle: a report in the Los Angeles Times. An archaeological exhibit had come to the Getty Museum, and among the artifacts on display was a peculiar wooden mask.

The mask.

Now, he hesitates with arms outstretched. He knows the instant he lifts the glass, an alarm will ring. But, of course, once he puts on the mask, that won’t matter. Once he puts on the mask—once he dons the vengeful spirits of his people like a shield—nothing will be able to stop him.

He removes the glass.

An alarm bell rings.

When he places the mask over his face, a dark energy swirls before his eyes like motes of electrified dust.

The guards arrive a minute later, and he turns to greet them, face twisted in a rictus of supernatural ecstasy. Let them come, he thinks. Let them bear witness to his revenge.

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Buried Alive

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 24, 2016.

They said it was for the common good. They said it had to be done, that there was no other way. Eventually, no justification was needed. They were too great a liability. It was too dangerous for them to live among society and there was nothing that could be done to improve their condition.

So in the end, thousands of men, women, and children were rounded up like cattle and buried alive. Polite society did its best to ignore their shocked and disbelieving cries, their futile pleas for mercy and redemption.

It was necessary.

It was for the common good.

When it was over, the truth was buried along with the victims. Thousands of years passed, and society almost forgot. But the truth refused to remain buried.

Now, in an open field far from the city, in a barren patch of earth that’s remained empty to this day, a dark energy stirs. The ground rumbles, a deep bellowing groan.

They’re coming, and they want revenge.

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Freedom

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Fingers feeling, reaching. Hands clawing, digging. Arms pulling, stretching. Finally the world heaved, and Samantha pulled herself up to the surface.

Free.

Samantha was free.

She fell to the cold, coarse dirt beneath the silver light of the moon and cried.

How long had that foul, rancid creature held her captive beneath the earth? How much time had passed on the outside while she howled and screamed, the sound stifled by the dozens of feet of soil and stone piled on top of her as she languished in her underground prison?

The creature had called her its bride, and then it had laughed, a soft, crawling sound that slithered through the dark. Then it had gone to sleep, and while it slumbered, she’d dug her way to freedom, holding her nose in a futile attempt to ward against the creature’s stink as time melted and slipped around her.

And now she was free.

Exhausted, she couldn’t walk, couldn’t even stand. But she wouldn’t stay here, not when the creature might wake and pull her back down. So she crawled. On her hands and knees, she crawled. In tattered, soil-stained clothes, she crawled.

One arm forward, then the other. A slow but steady pace, almost a rhythm. The grim, gritty work took her mind off the terror, the trauma, the pain, and she found herself gaining momentum, tapping into reserves she thought she’d depleted long ago.

Soon she was testing her feet. She stumbled. Righted herself. Took two and a half unsteady steps. Then she pitched forward onto her hands and knees once more.

Pain: sharp, sudden. An image of the creature’s hands around her neck flared in her mind like a strobe. The terror it evoked drove her back to her feet, until she was running, on and on into endless dark.

*               *               *

On six legs and seven arms, the creature rose, surveying the moonlit field with devilish delight.

Free.

The creature was free.

Eons had passed since it had seen the world last, and it was eager to be off. It found the hunt for its bride exhilarating, and it would relish every moment of the chase.

It caught the scent of the human named Samantha and bounded off in pursuit, on and on into endless dark.

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It Rises

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From the depths of the Earth, it rises.

The ground shudders, cleaves in two, while nearby rocks tip and slide into the endless dark below. The Earth groans, a deafening rumble like the blast of nearby dynamite, then falls silent, holding its breath in anticipation.

At last, the creature peeks at the world above through its twenty slitted eyes. It is still groggy, still half asleep, and for a moment it thinks it must be dreaming, for the Earth has changed since it saw it last.

No longer wild, no longer the boundless expanse of forests, mountains, and rocks it once was, the world is now hedged into neatly trimmed lines, penned in on every side by foreign constructions of metal and artificial stone. A strange configuration, certainly the makings of a dream. Yet after further examination beneath the blazing light of the sun, it understands that what it sees is real enough.

Dazed, it heaves itself to the surface and yawns. Change or no change, it feels good to be awake, to roam the Earth once more.

A shrill cry, followed by a scream. The creature turns its bulbous head.

The organisms it encounters are ghastly, hideous bipeds with bodies like bean poles and large, gaping orifices through which they utter the most horrendous sound.

Terrified, it bounds across the grass.

More cries, along with meaty, gutteral slaps as the organisms turn their heads to communicate. It runs, through a series of black marked paths and artificial stone walks, it runs, encompassed everywhere by towering, glass-filled monoliths, flashing lights atop iron poles, and self-propelled vehicles that screech to a halt as the creature flees the nightmare that surrounds it.

It can’t get away. Everywhere it turns, those ghastly creatures shout at it, pointing, shrieking, gibbering with equal parts terror and rage. Yes, indeed, the world has changed, and not for the better.

Exhausted, overwhelmed, and out of its depth, it scrambles back to the field it rose out of. Let these hateful creatures have their world. As for itself, it’s seen enough.

It arrives at the tunnel to its home to find more mutant bipeds, staring down into its private space like shameless voyeurs.

Rage consumes it. My home. They’ve surrounded MY home! All it wanted was to walk the Earth in peace, and even this simple pleasure has been taken from it. Fine, but it’ll be damned if it’s going to let these horrid creatures rob it of his only remaining sanctuary.

It peers down at them with each of its twenty eyes and lets loose a ferocious howl. So low, so deep is the sound that the ground begins to resonate. Once more, the Earth shakes, and those evil creatures, terrified, scurry like the ants they are, leaving it alone at last.

It leaps into the hole, descends the mile-long tunnel to its home. Then it covers the opening with a fresh avalanche of stone. It finds its dark and rocky mattress undisturbed and jumps into it like a frightened child, willing the nightmare to end.

Maybe when it next awakens, the world will have changed again, this time for the better.

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Summons

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It came for me.

In the dark of night, it came for me.

A creature like a man, only its skin was porcelain white, a phantom wreathed in moonlight. It smiled with bloodless lips, and from the endless depths of the dark it bade me follow after it.

There was no running, no bargaining, no arguing my way to freedom. I’d seen its kind claim others, seen its feral, animalistic rage as it made short work of those who would not answer its call willingly.

So I hunched my shoulders, skin cold to the touch, and nodded.

The creature turned to make its way down the graveled walkway, and I followed in its wake, wondering what the purpose of its summons could be, wondering if I’d be alive to recount the tale by morning.

I could hear the steady, irregular rhythm of far-off cars, while all around, I was serenaded by a chorus of nearby crickets—a funeral dirge to lead the creature and I as we hiked across the street, then along the sidewalk on the other side.

A million questions surged through my head like an angry sea, but terror held my desiccated tongue and I remained silent.

We headed out toward a busier street, and I pondered what others would think if they saw the creature that walked in their midst. A ghost? A corpse in motion? No, likely just a man; perhaps a bit too bright in the glow of nearby headlights, but a man just the same. Most lack the training we possess and can’t perceive the darker proportions of the world with clarity.

At last we turned a corner and stepped up onto another house’s porch, haloed in bright gold light. The creature reached out with its too-thin fingers and knocked on the door.

When it opened, when the thing inside gestured for us to enter, my heart sank, for I was certain now I wouldn’t see the sunrise.

“I’ve been expecting you for a while,” its dry voice rasped.

I pressed forward, determined not to let my fear show.

The darkness of the house’s interior enveloped me.

The door closed.

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The World is Ours

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He sits on a rusty park bench, brushes dirt from his one button suit jacket, and pulls out a copy of the Los Angeles Times. The paper is smooth and uncreased and smells of fresh carbon black. He unties the plastic ribbon that binds the pages together, winds it into a tiny, tightly packed ball, and tosses it into the trash can beside him.

He opens to the front page and begins to read.

The playground behind him is quiet, empty, like an old western ghost town. The kids are in school, and the adults are packed away like rare collectible action figures in neatly trimmed cubicles. He treasures these moments of silence, and he looks forward to tomorrow, when the absence of human activity will become more or less a permanent fixture.

He scans through all the articles in the paper, even the celebrity gossip columns and the sports pages. He finds these humans to be fascinating creatures, with their almost manic obsession over trivial, mundane matters. In a world so cold and chaotic, perhaps it’s their only way to feel as if they’re somehow in control, as if the cosmic rumblings of the universe are of little consequence when compared to the ability to extol a home run by one’s favorite baseball team or to sully a public figure’s reputation.

Like beatles atop a dunghill, he thinks, believing themselves for centuries to be the center of a human-focused cosmos. Tomorrow, when the Earth is wiped clean, when his kind finally reclaim what has always been theirs by birthright, they will be little more than a footnote in the history of the world.

Scattered through the newspaper like rare and precious diamonds are articles that offer brief glimpses of what humanity could become if allowed more time to mature. Op-eds that call for unity in the face of arbitrary political divisions. Scientific columns urging people to become better stewards of the environment. Even news about progress made in the exploration of other worlds.

But tomorrow, none of it will matter. Tomorrow, the slate will be wiped clean, and he and his kind will walk the world in the open once more. The humans had a good run, all things considered, but now it’s time for the Earth’s true masters to take their place on high.

He reaches the ads at the very back, then tosses the paper into the trash and rises to his feet. A meeting will soon take place between himself and others of his species, and he does not wish to be late.

“Enjoy the day, my little dung beatles.” The words come out a dry whisper. “Treasure your remaining hours, because tomorrow, the world is ours.”

He turns from the park and walks away.

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I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of dĂ©jĂ  vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.

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